Amygdala Responses to Emotionally Valenced Stimuli in Older and Younger Adults

Authors: Mara Mather, University of California, Santa Cruz; Turhan Canli, State University of New York, Stony Brook; Tammy English, Sue Whitfield, Peter Wais, Kevin Ochsner, John D.E. Gabreli, and Laura Carstensen, Stanford University

Publication: Psychological Science

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Aging, Emotion, Memory

Relevance: Focusing on the positive and forgetting the negative emotional content of a sales pitch or public service announcement may impact whether a potential fraud victim is vulnerable or informed. Successful messages (fraudulent or educational) would account for a shift in mental priorities with age.

Summary: This article argues that increases in age lead to a redistribution – as opposed to a decrease – in cognitive functioning when processing emotional information.  This is evaluated by measuring the activity of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with memory and emotional attention.

  • Previous studies showed that older adults tend to retain less negative emotional information than do younger adults.  There is a tendency for this reduction to be interpreted as cognitive decline with age.
  • This article demonstrates that the activity of the amygdala decreases with age only for negative emotional images, and maintains or increases in response to positive images.
  • The changes in emotional memory with age may be the result of a reallocation of cognitive processes, with greater energy devoted to positive emotional content.
  • Both younger and older adults show greater amygdala activation for emotional than for neutral images, corresponding with our knowledge that all ages’ are better able to remember emotionally significant information.

Author Abstract: As they age, adults experience less negative emotion, come to pay less attention to negative than to positive emotional stimuli, and become less likely to remember negative than positive emotional materials. This profile of findings suggests that, with age, the amygdala may show decreased reactivity to negative information while maintaining or increasing its reactivity to positive information. We used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess whether amygdala activation in response to positive and negative emotional pictures changes with age. Both older and younger adults showed greater activation in the amygdala for emotional than for neutral pictures; however, for older adults, seeing positive pictures led to greater amygdala activation than seeing negative pictures, whereas this was not the case for younger adults.

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Aging and Emotional Memory: The Forgettable Nature of Negative Images for Older Adults

Authors: Susan Turk Charles, University of California, Irvine; Mara Mather, University of California, Santa Cruz; Laura Carstensen, Stanford University

Publication: Journal of Experimental Psychology

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Emotion, Memory, Aging

Relevance: Understanding what information is most likely to be retained by different population segments helps explain why older adults may be more likely to fall for a fraud ploy and helps maximize the preventative education of potential fraud victims.

Summary: Older adults are more likely to forget information with a negative emotional impact, in part because older adults have a different mental focus.  Their emphasis is more on emotional meaningfulness rather than monetary rewards or “goal striving.”  Thanks to this shift in focus with age, they improve their control of emotions and increasingly avoid (or fail to encode) negative emotional content.  As a result, information with positive emotional relevance continues to be retained, while information with negative emotional relevance is more likely to be forgotten.

  • Educational materials and other information targeting older adults are more likely to be remembered if they contain imagery with a positive emotional impact.
  • There is evidence of correlation between the mood of an individual and that person’s ability to recall emotionally charged information; for example, a person in a negative emotional state is more likely to recall negative information.
  • Both younger and older adults spend greater amounts of time examining images with negative emotional impact, yet older adults’ memory performance does not benefit from this extra time.  This may relate to (and further research needs to explore) greater activation of the amygdala in younger adults than in older adults when processing negative information.

Author Abstract: Two studies examined age differences in recall and recognition memory for positive, negative, and neutral stimuli. In Study 1, younger, middle-aged, and older adults were shown images on a computer screen and, after a distraction task, were asked first to recall as many as they could and then to identify previously shown images from a set of old and new ones. The relative number of negative images compared with positive and neutral images recalled decreased with each successively older age group. Recognition memory showed a similar decrease with age in the relative memory advantage for negative pictures. In Study 2, the largest age differences in recall and recognition accuracy were also for the negative images. Findings are consistent with socioemotional selectivity theory, which posits greater investment in emotion regulation with age.

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Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want

Authors: Timothy D. Wilson, University of Virginia; Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard University

Publication: Current Directions in Psychological Science

Year: 2005

Focus Area: Decision Making, Emotion, Prevention

Relevance: Poor financial decisions, such as falling for a scam, may in part result from a person’s inability to accurately forecast what will make them happy.  If we first understand what causes faulty emotional predictions, and then encourage a more accurate analysis, we may be able to facilitate safer and more appropriate decision making.

Summary: “[P]eople routinely mispredict how much pleasure or displeasure future events will bring and, as a result, sometimes work to bring about events that do not maximize their happiness” (p. 131).  This tendency is explained in part by impact bias, or an inability to infer the severity or duration of the emotional consequences of an event – positive or negative, partly due to:

  • focalism, or the tendency to disregard all but one aspect of the future when predicting it, and
  • immune neglect, or the tendency to ignore how we explain away negative experiences

These tendencies may in part explain why people:

  • attribute their own resiliency to a higher power
  • prefer reversible decisions to irreversible ones (though the latter usually make them happier),
  • may be impacted more significantly by minor events than major ones, and
  • mistakenly predict that losing something will have a greater impact than gaining its equivalent.

Encouraging the following behaviors may help create a more informed perspective and facilitate more balanced decision making:

  • Considering a range of things that make one happy and unhappy (“Many different things, not just the one thing I’m worried about, will influence how I feel in the future.”)
  • Improving one’s awareness of natural coping mechanisms (“Positive events won’t be as good and negative ones won’t be as bad as I anticipate thanks to my psychological immune system.”)

Author Abstract: People base many decisions on affective forecasts, predictions about their emotional reactions to future events. They often display an impact bias, overestimating the intensity and duration of their emotional reactions to such events. One cause of the impact bias is focalism, the tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings. Another is people’s failure to anticipate how quickly they will make sense of things that happen to them in a way that speeds emotional recovery. This is especially true when predicting reactions to negative events: People fail to anticipate how quickly they will cope psychologically with such events in ways that speed their recovery from them. Several implications are discussed, such as the tendency for people to attribute their unexpected resilience to external agents.

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Putting Time in Perspective: A Valid, Reliable Individual-Differences Metric

Authors: Philip G. Zimbardo, Stanford University; John N. Boyd, Stanford University

Publication: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Profile, Prevention, Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: An accurate assessment of time perspective, a process that influences decision making, could help identify characteristics of fraud victims that make them particularly vulnerable to scams. This information would allow prevention programs to tailor education techniques to the needs of vulnerable groups and teach skills that encourage people to use the appropriate time perspective.

Summary: Time perspective (TP) is a learned, unconscious process that people use to mentally sort and organize experiences. Time perspectives influence decision making, but this influence often goes unnoticed because time perspective is so pervasive in daily life. This paper presents a questionnaire designed to allow measurement and comparison of time perspective.

  • There are five components of time perspective: past-negative, present-hedonistic, future, past-positive, and present-fatalistic.
  • A “balanced TP” allows an individual to shift between TPs depending on the situation. Over-reliance on one particular time perspective can lead people to make bad decisions.

Author Abstract: Time perspective (TP), a fundamental dimension in the construction of psychological, time, emerges from cognitive processes partitioning human experience into past, present, and future temporal frames. The authors’ research program proposes that TP is a pervasive and powerful yet largely unrecognized influence on much human behavior. Although TP variations are learned and modified by a variety of personal, social, and institutional influences, TP also functions as an individual-differences variable. Reported is a new measure assessing personal variations in TP profiles and specific TP “biases.” The 5 factors of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory were established through exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses and demonstrate acceptable internal and test-retest reliability. Convergent, divergent, discriminant, and predictive validity are shown by correlational and experimental research supplemented by case studies.

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Can Insight Breed Callousness? The Impact of Learning about the Identifiable Victim Effect on Sympathy

Authors: Deborah A. Small, University of Pennsylvania; George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University; Paul Slovic, Decision Research

Year: 2005

Focus Area: Persuasion, Prevention, Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: Frauds may take advantage of sympathy to extract money from their targets – yet another example of the emotional component of decision making. Fraud prevention programs may also use stories of specific victims to elicit sympathy and understanding from people at risk for fraud.

Summary: Large donations of money could be more efficiently used if they were distributed to a number of victims, rather than to a single person. But these “identifiable victims” inspire more generosity in donors than descriptions of statistical victims. This paper asks if individuals can be taught to value life – whether identifiable or statistical – equally.

  • People tend to value proportions more than total numbers, so a tragedy that affects 20 people in a town of 300 is seen as much more serious than a similar event that affects 20 people in a city of two million. The same goes for positive events.
  • People give more generously when they are giving to a victim who has been selected (even if they aren’t told anything more about the victim) rather than a victim who will be chosen in the future.
  • When subjects in this experiment were educated about the influence of identifiability, they gave similar amounts to both statistical and identifiable victims. However, they gave less to identifiable victims, rather than giving more to statistical victims. As a result, total generosity decreased.

Author Abstract: When donating to charitable causes, people do not value lives consistently. Money is often concentrated on a single victim even though more people would be helped if resources were dispersed or spent protecting future victims. We examine the impact of insight about the “identifiable victim effect” on generosity. In a series of field experiments, we show that teaching or priming people to recognize the discrepancy in giving toward identifiable and statistical victims had perverse effects: individuals gave less to identifiable victims but did not increase giving to statistical victims, resulting in an overall reduction in caring and giving. Thus, it appears that, when thinking analytically, people discount sympathy towards identifiable victims but fail to generate sympathy toward statistical victims.

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The Affect Heuristic

Authors: Paul Slovic, Decision Research; Melissa Finucane, Decision Research; Ellen Peters, Decision Research; Donald G. MacGregor, Decision Research

Publication: T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman, (Eds.), Intuitive Judgment: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Decision making, Emotion

Relevance: Affective preferences guide decision making and can be deeply entrenched. The reliance upon emotions to aid decision making can also make people vulnerable to making bad decisions in certain circumstances.

Summary: The paper suggests a theory of an “affect heuristic” in which people attach emotions (affects) to their mental representations of objects and actions. They are then able to make faster, more efficient decisions by referring to these affective tags rather than working through the benefits and consequences of each decision every time they make a choice.

  • Familiarity to an object prompts people to rate it positively.
  • Induced preferences – preferences for otherwise neutral images as a result of subliminal exposure to a smiling face – retained their association even when a second component of the experiment attempted to re-prime the images with frowning faces. The first association, with a smiling face, remained despite the re-priming efforts.
  • The way in which a gamble is framed changes its attractiveness. People can understand probabilities well and use them to determine risk (i.e. winning 7 out of 36 times is not very attractive) but have trouble doing the same with a dollar amount (winning gets $9), unless that amount can be compared to the potential loss (winning gets $9, but losing costs 5 cents).
  • People have trouble evaluating values – potential winnings, amounts of ice cream – unless they can judge them in comparison to another value.

Author Abstract: This chapter introduces a theoretical framework that describes the importance of affect in guiding judgments and decisions. As used here, “affect” means the specific quality of “goodness” or “badness” (i) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness) and (ii) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus. Affective responses occur rapidly and automatically – note how quickly you sense the feelings associated with the stimulus word “treasure” or the word “hate.” We shall argue that reliance on such feelings can be characterized as “the affect heuristic.” In this chapter we will trace the development of the affect heuristic across a variety of research paths followed by ourselves and many others. We will also discuss some of the important practical implications resulting from ways that this heuristic impacts our daily lives.

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Rational Actors or Rational Fools? Implications of the Affect Heuristic for Behavioral Economics

Authors: Paul Slovic, Decision Research; Melissa L. Finucane, Center for Health Research, Hawaii; Ellen Peters, Decision Research; Donald G. MacGregor, Decision Research

Publication: American Institute for Economic Research (symposium paper)

Year: 2002

Focus Area: Decision Making, Prevention, Emotion

Relevance: This article presents a readable and comprehensive review of the affect heuristic – the tendency to rely upon positive or negative emotions to guide decision making – with many experimental examples. The section on judging risk may be especially useful in the fraud prevention field, as people tend to assume that low risk situations have high benefits, and vice versa.

Summary: “Using an overall, readily available affective impression can be far easier — more efficient — than weighing the pros and cons or retrieving from memory many relevant examples, especially when the required judgment or decision is complex or mental resources are limited.”

  • In most cases, people perceive high risk situations as having low potential benefit, and low risk situations as having high potential benefit. When time is limited, this relationship becomes even stronger.
  • Well-known and dreaded hazards (i.e. cancer) are seen as riskier than less dreaded hazards (i.e. accidents).

Author Abstract: This paper introduces a theoretical framework that describes the importance of affect in guiding judgments and decisions. As used here, “affect” means the specific quality of “goodness” or “badness” (i) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness) and (ii) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus. Affective responses occur rapidly and automatically — note how quickly you sense the feelings associated with the stimulus word “treasure” or the word “hate.” We shall argue that reliance on such feelings can be characterized as “the affect heuristic.” We will trace the development of the affect heuristic across a variety of research paths and discuss some of the important practical implications resulting from ways that this heuristic impacts our daily lives.

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Investment Behavior and the Negative Side of Emotion

Authors: Baba Shiv, Stanford University; George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University; Antoine Bechara, University of Iowa; Hanna Damasio, University of Iowa; Antonio R. Damasio, University of Iowa

Publication: Psychological Science

Year: 2006

Focus Area: Decision Making, Emotion, Consumer Behavior

Relevance: People use both rational thought and emotion to evaluate risk as they make decisions. Further insight into the mechanisms by which emotion and rational thinking interact may help identify persuasion techniques and inform prevention programs for fraud victims.

Summary: Emotions have been shown to both improve and hinder decision making, depending on the circumstances. In this study, subjects with brain lesions in areas related to emotion made better choices than normal subjects in a gamble designed to reflect a real-life investment. The experiment was designed to reward people who invested money in each of 20 rounds, regardless of their success or failure in preceding rounds.

  • This study builds on fact that people become increasingly risk averse when they are presented with a series of gambles one after another. This tendency is called myopic loss aversion, and can influence people even when the potential reward is greater than the potential loss.
  • The target subjects – those with disrupted emotional processing – performed better than normal subjects in this test and invested equally after wins and losses.
  • Normal subjects were more risk averse than the target subjects throughout the experiment. Within the normal subject group, participants were more risk averse after losing a preceding round than after a winning round – even though the outcome of the preceding round had no influence on the odds in the next round.

Author Abstract: Can dysfunction in neural systems subserving emotion lead, under certain circumstances, to more advantageous decisions? To answer this question, we investigated how normal participants, patients with stable focal lesions in brain regions related to emotion (target patients), and patients with stable focal lesions in brain regions unrelated to emotion (control patients) made 20 rounds of investment decisions. Target patients made more advantageous decisions and ultimately earned more money from their investments than the normal participants and control patients. When normal participants and control patients either won or lost money on an investment round, they adopted a conservative strategy and became more reluctant to invest on the subsequent round; these results suggest that they were more affected than target patients by the outcomes of decisions made in the previous rounds.

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Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making

Authors: Baba Shiv, University of Iowa; Alexander Fedorikhan, Washington State University

Publication: Journal of Consumer Research

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Persuasion, Decision Making, Emotion

Relevance: The products offered to people in scams, as well as the presentation of these products, may appeal to victims’ emotions. If victims are preoccupied with other mental tasks – if they have few processing resources available – they may be more likely to make decisions based on emotions rather than reason, especially if they are impulsive personalities to begin with.

Summary: This experiment tested how people make decisions when they are preoccupied with another mental task. The authors suggest that processing resources are a limited resource; that if a person is using some of their processing resources to perform a task, like remembering numbers, they will make decisions based on their emotions rather than on critical thinking.

  • When people were asked to choose between chocolate cake and fruit salad while remembering a seven-digit number, 63% chose the cake, which is more rewarding on an emotional basis. Of people who made this decision while remembering a two-digit number (a less challenging mental task), only 41% chose cake.
  • When the same experiment was performed using photographs of cake and fruit salad, rather than the real objects, there was no difference between the seven-digit and two-digit memory groups. The photographs, which only symbolized the object, did not elicit the same emotional response (and corresponding decisions) that the real objects did.
  • The subjects were also scored on a test of impulsiveness versus prudence. High scorers, the “impulsives,” were much more likely than people with low scores to choose the cake when they were simultaneously performing a difficult mental task. Both groups had similar results when they were not preoccupied with a difficult mental task.

Author Abstract: This article examines how consumer decision making is influenced by automatically evoked task-induced affect and by cognitions that are generated in a more controlled manner on exposure to alternatives in a choice task. Across two experiments respondents chose between two alternatives: one (chocolate cake) associated with more intense positive affect but less favorable cognitions, compared to a second (fruit salad) associated with less favorable affect but more favorable cognitions. Findings from the two experiments suggest that if processing resources are limited, spontaneously evoked affective reactions rather than cognitions tend to have a greater impact on choice. As a result, the consumer is more likely to choose the alternative that is superior on the affective dimension but inferior on the cognitive dimension (e.g., chocolate cake). In contrast, when the availability of processing resources is high, cognitions related to the consequences of choosing the alternatives tend to have a bigger impact on choice compared to when the availability of these resources is low. As a result, the consumer is more likely to choose the alternative that is inferior on the affective dimension but superior on the cognitive dimension (e.g., fruit salad). The moderating roles of the mode of presentation of the alternatives and of a personality variable related to impulsivity are also reported.

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Choosing an Inferior Alternative

Authors: J. Edward Russo, Cornell University; Kurt A. Carlson, Duke University; Margaret G. Meloy, The Pennsylvania State University

Publication: Psychological Science

Year: 2006

Focus Area: Persuasion, Emotion, Decision Making

Relevance: People may become involved in scams that they would not rationally choose to participate in. The ways in which fraudsters present information to their victims may be important in explaining why people agree to scams that, when examined rationally, are not good choices.

Summary: This experiment shows that people can be manipulated to make irrational decisions simply by the order in which information about their options is presented. In this case, people were manipulated to choose a restaurant that they had previously rated as undesirable.

  • The first part of the experiment was a control test, in which participants chose between two restaurants that were presented evenly. Less than half (41%) of the subjects chose the inferior restaurant, as expected.
  • A second part of the experiment, conducted two weeks later with the same subjects, attempted to increase the number of people choosing the inferior restaurant by manipulating the order in which subjects learned information about the restaurant.
  • The share of the group that chose the inferior restaurant increased from 41% to 62% between the two sessions. Furthermore, the participants were equally confident of their decision in the second session as the first and were unaware that they had been manipulated at all.

Author Abstract: We show how decision makers can be induced to choose a personally inferior alternative, a strong violation of rational decision making. First, the inferior alternative is installed as the leading option by starting with information that supports this alternative. Then, the decision maker uses the natural process of distorting new information to support whichever alternative is leading. This leader-supporting distortion overcomes the inherent advantages of the superior alternative. The end result is a tendency to choose the self-identified inferior alternative. We trace the choice process to reveal the amount of distortion and its influence on preference. Self-reported awareness of distortion to support the inferior alternative is not related to the amount of distortion. The absence of valid awareness suggests that the manipulation that produces this preference violation is unlikely to be detected and that the distortion is unlikely to be corrected by the decision maker. As expected, given the lack of awareness, final confidence is just as high when the inferior alternative is chosen as when the superior one is. The discussion considers how to prevent an adversary from manipulating one’s decisions using this technique.

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